7 Steps Towards Running your First Ultra

So you’ve run 26.2 miles and you’re all like “OMG, marathoning is SO 1976. I want to go BIGGER!” Now you’re stuffing your face with a leftover pasta, listening to Ultrarunner Podcast, reading Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning and trying to figure out what to do with your life. Lucky you! Today we are going to cover 7 steps toward running your first ultra:

Choose an “easy” Ultra

I know what you’re thinking: “You’re out of your mind if you think anything beyond 26.2 sounds easy!” But take it from me, there are easy ultramarathons and there are hard ultramarathons. A prime local example here in Washington would be Defiance 50K v.s. Orcas island 50K. The flora may look similar, but Orcas Island 50K features a staggering elevation change of 17,000 feet while Defiance 50K features 6,000 feet of change. This could mean a difference of one to two or even three hours on your feet, depending on your fitness level. For your first rodeo, I suggest you go “easy”.

Start Small

Don’t jump from 26.2 to 100 miles. You’ve got a lifetime of running ahead of you if you do things right and you don’t want to end up with a blown out back. If it’s something you’re interested in, start with a 50K and work your way up slowly. There is no sense risking a DNF by choosing a mountainous 100 Miler as your first Ultra. Ultrarunning takes an immense amount of endurance, focus and mental tenacity, not to mention the time and patience it takes to properly train for one. Those demands will only increase as the distance goes up.

Test your “stuff”

Apart from increasing your training volume and altering your tactics, you need to be in constant practice with your gear; what we call a “dress rehearsal”. The smallest problem, like the wrong socks, can become a HUGE issue when you’re out on your feet all day in questionable weather. What shoes will you wear? What socks? Shorts or tights? Glide or Squirrel’s Nut Butter? Do you need a jacket? Gloves? A headlamp? A hydration pack? Gels? Solid Food? The list goes on, but you need to make a check list and then regularly run in the gear you will use on race race day. Eat in training what you plan to eat on the big day. Drink what you plan to drink, and so on. Make sure you show up as comfortable and prepared as possible.

Don’t Race

Unless you’re Sage Canaday or Jim Walmsley, it might be best not to “race” your first ultra. Even with the 50K simply being a poorly measured marathon with hills, it presents many challenges that you won’t experience in the standard road marathon: mud, rocks, roots, stream crossings, climbing up mountains, and adverse weather conditions, just to name a few. When you toe the line at your first Ultra, go out with one goal in mind: to have FUN!

Don’t give up

Unlike the standard marathon, you will hit many walls, even in the 50K distance. Depending on the Ultra you choose, you will be out on your feet somewhere between 4 and 30 hours (30 hours if you’re ignoring tip #2). You will feel depleted, energized and then depleted again, many times over. It’s important to remember something my mom would always tell me growing up: “This too shall pass”. Like most things, it won’t be gone forever, but as you move through the run you will feel new again, your legs will come back, and you will feel an inexplicable sense of strength and joy. It’s impossible to describe this feeling, but be careful, a low may sneak back around before you finish. Wotk through it!

Have Fun

Remember: This isn’t a race! The Ultrarunning community is unlike any other. Are we impressed with CRs and FKTs? Yes! Do we really give a crap who finishes 1st or 400th? No! We will pick you up if you fall down and we will sacrifice our own race time to help you finish if that means walking you in. We are all out on the trails to experience wild and scenic areas together; to connect with the land as well as with each other. When things get tough just smile, strike up a conversation with your new friend, and keep moving forward.

Be proud

After the 900th person says “50 miles? I don’t even like to drive that far!” You might feel slightly annoyed, but hey! 50 miles is a long drive! And you just ran it. Revel in your accomplishment! You’ve just done something very few people on this planet will do. That’s something to be proud of.

Now you can do anything.

bellingham running coach
Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

Korey Konga is a former Team RunRun coach. While he’s no longer coaching runners, he’s still rocking life in the PNW. Thanks for all the tips, Korey!